The view of Antigua from Shirley Heights. (Photo: Lisa Bonner)
Give me any reason to take a tropical vacation, but the post-holiday hustle is the perfect time to take that “New Year, New Me” rejuvenation trip. The Caribbean, which is so close to us, is always a good start, but with choices from Aruba to Mexico, how do you narrow them down?
After a quick stop in Antigua years ago on a small cruise ship, I jumped at the chance to go back, and as I quickly learned, the island fits me to a T.
When it comes to vacations, I’m pretty practical. With the Caribbean, I’m always looking for a few staples:
I want the path of least resistance to get there, and a direct flight if possible.
Options for daytime activities: Some days I never want to leave the resort; on others, I might like to explore the local culture or go scuba diving.
Options for nightlife: My nights may be spent lounging at a native restaurant or dancing at a music festival.
Finally, I’m pretty consistent about my vibe. I want a vacation to be a vacation; an island that’s not overrun by chain hotels and commercial tequila joints — and did I mention nice beaches?
Here’s why Antigua is perfect for all of this:
1. Getting to Antigua is now easier than ever. JetBlue recently began nonstop service from New York’s JFK airport, and until early April, you can snag round-trip flights for as little as $263. Most other U.S. carriers offer nonstop service from major cities to the newly renovated V. C. Bird International Airport, and customs is a breeze.
Sunset over Dickenson Bay: definitely a great reason to visit Antigua. (Photo: Lisa Bonner)
2. About those beaches in Antigua: there are 365 of them, as in one for every day of the year. The beaches, varied and diverse, deserve recognition because they’re surrounded by lush landscapes, near some cultural hotspots, and most have white or pink sand and crystal-clear water ideal for scuba diving or swimming.
3. Dickenson Bay’s sheer number of hotels and shops, and its proximity to the casino and the city center of St. John’s, make it popular with tourists and families. If you don’t want to venture too far, Dickenson is your spot.
The turquoise waters of Coco Bay. (Photo: Lisa Bonner)
4. I preferred Coco Bay, a strip of beaches hidden from view of the main road that is only 8 miles southwest of St. John’s. The unspoiled, tranquil beaches provide the perfect respite for the discerning adult traveler.
5. The slice of heaven otherwise known as Ffryes Beach is home to white sands and the chic, adult, all-inclusive Coco Bay Resort, and on a clear day, you can sip your drink from the beach with unobstructed views of Montserrat. Just up the sandy hill, overlooking Coco Bay, is Dennis Cocktail Bar and Restaurant, one of the most popular eateries on the island — with tourists and locals alike. Dennis himself is frequently on site, preparing or overseeing his distinctive menu of freshly made local and international dishes. We devoured several orders of the conch fritters and seafood cakes, and I finished my meal with one of the best whole red snapper dishes I’d ever eaten, hands down.
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Learn about Antigua’s British occupation at the Betty’s Hope sugar mill. (Photo: Lisa Bonner)
6. Antigua is quietly swathed in culture, embracing both its African and European heritage. At Betty’s Hope, a sugar mill that dates to the mid-17th century British occupation of Antigua, you’ll find replicas of windmills that revolutionized the sugar cane extraction process. Using this new technology and employing slave labor, the estate became one of the largest sugar plantations in Antigua.
7. Drive northeast, where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Caribbean Sea, and you’ll find Devil’s Bridge, a spectacular natural formation carved from the violent waves thrashing against the rocks on the beach. It gets its name from the slippery surface where the rocks intersect, and many African slaves would come here to the most eastern part of the island to throw themselves into the Atlantic, hoping their spirits would continue eastward to the Motherland to rest.
Nelson’s Dockyard still has some of the buildings from the British occupation. (Photo: Lisa Bonner)
8. English Harbor is a beach area with a cultural underpinning. Nelson’s Dockyard, a national park of partially restored buildings from the British fortification of the island, is the cornerstone. It’s an easy stroll past the tented vendors to the dockyard’s ship museum and a variety of small stores selling the usual local crafts and spices.
But the real appeal is the charming Admiral’s Inn, a small boutique hotel that occupies one of the dockyard’s original buildings constructed in 1785. Refurbished in what I’d best describe as colonial chic, the hotel’s charming beachside courtyard overlooks the yachts moored in the harbor, and screams perfect wedding venue. And if you just happen to get inspired to get married here, you can do it on the fly with Antigua’s no-residency requirements. English Harbor also hosts Sailing Week, one of the world’s most famous regatta races. Every April, locals and tourists come from all over to party by the sea or watch from spectator boats as some of the world’s best racing boats compete in nautical obstacle and race courses.
9. Speaking of partying, it seems like Antiguans will use any reason to do so. Each Sunday for the past 31 years — “like church” — Shirley Heights Lookout hosts its Sunday Sunset Party. Starting at 4 p.m., locals and tourists converge on the restaurant to eat barbecue and party with the steel band while watching the sunset over the nearby islands from arguably one of the best lookouts on the island.
10. If you want to dance for your entire vacation, visit during Antigua’s Carnival, now in its 60th year. Typically held at the end of July, this 12-day festival of street parties, beach fetes, and parades celebrates the emancipation of slaves at the end of the British Empire Atlantic Slave Trade.
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